Charles H. Tillotson straddled the divide between wood and concrete

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

My Great-grandfather Charles H. Tillotson may have been following his trade by instinct, but he opened the way for descendants to distinguish themselves in the business of elevator construction.

I know the Tillotsons saw themselves primarily as carpenters. My Uncle Charles J. Tillotson went to work as an apprentice carpenter for Tillotson Construction, which was founded after the death of his grandfather Charles. My Uncle Michael Tillotson learned carpentry on through the family business and worked as a carpenter throughout his career. When I helped him finish concrete sidewalks on a couple of side jobs in the 1970s, he preached a gospel that carpenters could do it all, whether it be concrete or painting. And in elevator construction, it was true.

Charles H. Tillotson was born in Brunswick, Mo., in 1880. He married Rose Brennan in Riverside, Iowa.

He and my Great-grandmother Rose had an apparently cozy life in Omaha with their three grown children, Joseph, Reginald, and Mary, all of whom became involved in elevator construction. Kristen Cart’s research has found the Tillotsons listed in the 1930 census. They lived at 624 N. 41st.

A 1936 city directory listed Charles H. as president of Van Ness Construction, a company that built mills and elevators. Joseph served as secretary-treasurer and Reginald was a foreman. Mary worked as a clerk-typist at the Federal Land Bank.

Charles_Tillotson_Obit__The_Nebraska_State_Journal__Lincoln__Nebr___19_June_1938

By then, Reginald was married to my grandmother, Margaret Irene McDunn Tillotson. Their firstborn Charles J., had arrived in 1935, followed the next year by my mother, Mary Catherine.

Uncle Tim Tillotson, the middle of their three sons between Charles J. and Michael (who was born in a home-built house trailer at a Smith Center, Kan., job site), says a story exchanged among the uncles was that Great-grandfather Charles H. would tell Reginald, “Put out that cigarette,” when they were working on jobs. The danger of fire was constant. How ironic, then, that Charles H. held a cigarette for his portrait.

After the death of paterfamilias Charles H., the Tillotson Construction Company was formed by Reginald, Joseph, and Mary. We would love to learn more about how this proceeded.

Meanwhile, the transition to slip-formed concrete construction was under way, with the Tillotsons’ carpentry skills being readily applied to the formwork.

A tale from the Johnson Construction elevator at Galatia, Kansas

DSC_0582 copy Blencoe

Blencoe, Iowa

Story by Kristen Cart

Once again, one of our readers has supplied a fascinating glimpse into the construction of an elevator.

Emily Frank is the granddaughter of Darrell Greenlee, a foreman for Johnson and Johnson-Sampson. She related a story about the beginnings of the Galatia, Kan., grain elevator:

The Post Crescent 26 Mar 1959My grandfather built slipform concrete grain elevators while my mom was little. My grandparents moved around every three to six months from the time they were married until my mom (the third of six children) was in third grade. I find a lot of your stories remind me of the ones my mom told or my grandmother tells. You did one where a man fell to his death from an elevator during construction. Unfortunately that happened on a job where my grandfather was the foreman, as well…

My grandfather worked for Virgil Johnson. At the time the company was Johnson Elevator Company.

At a job in Galatia, Kan., in 1959, while Darrell was stabilizing the family trailer, it fell and he was hit across his back and shoulders. Rosina took him to the hospital. The hospital wasn’t going to see him until she could pay. She didn’t have insurance. She told them instead, “I’ve got enough money to buy this damn hospital.” When they left two days later, she paid cash.

Rosina called Virgil to tell him that Darrell had been hurt–not bad but he was pretty bruised up. Rosina wasn’t sure what they were going to do. She told Virgil she wanted to know what he was going to do because if Darrell didn’t work, he didn’t get paid. Virgil asked if his butt was bruised and then pointed to a chair and said “See that chair right there, he can park his ass right there and supervise from his chair.”

When the elevator was just about completed a man fell from the top of the elevator. Darrell was a witness to the fall. The guy opened the door at the top and the wind caught him and blew him over the side of the elevator. He fell 120 feet to his death. The man was Arthur Kronberg, 42, originally from Menasha, Wisconsin.

Rosina said when they called the man’s brother to tell him he could come pick up his belongings, he didn’t seem very interested, except he asked if there was anything of value. They had told him his brother had a truck. The man reluctantly agreed to get the truck.

Emily filled in some of the details of her grandfather’s career. The history of Johnson Elevator Company that she shared intrigued us, because the company took up where Mayer-Osborn Company left off and built strikingly similar elevators. The Galatia elevator is a close copy of the Mayer-Osborn elevators at McCook, Neb., and Blencoe, Iowa. Because of the similarities between them and a number of other Johnson elevators, we have speculated whether designer Gene Mayer continued his career with Virgil Johnson and brought his designs with him. Emily continued:

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Page City, Kan.

The elevator at Galatia is on one of Johnson’s business cards.

Johnson used to work with some brothers with the last name Sampson. They were Virgil Johnson’s brothers-in-law. They worked together for a while, too, under the name Johnson-Sampson.

My grandfather worked constructing concrete elevators from 1947 to about 1963. He worked for several different people.

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Mitchellville, Iowa.

Johnson was the man he worked for most, on and off over the years. When Virgil and his brothers-in-law split, my grandfather went to work for Dewey Construction and then Young Love. Then Virgil found a partner, and my grandfather worked for Johnson & Bratcher. Then Virgil went off on his own as Johnson Elevator Company.

When Virgil went broke after a missile base job in the 1960s, my grandfather worked for a guy by the name of Guy James. He did two jobs for him until he finally settled in Rushville, Ill. He never built another elevator, but he had his own company and they did a lot of elevator repair work.

My own grandfather William Osborn’s experience followed a similar trajectory–after he was done with elevator construction, he went on to elevator repair and maintenance. We always attributed the cancer that took him at age 75 to the dust he breathed during those years, though some of the damage could have been from smoking, a habit he dropped ten years before he died.

The hazards of the business were sometimes obvious, but often stealthy and unexpected. From dust, to wind, to new boots, to heedless roofers, many things in elevator construction took lives–but the monuments built by these mortal men remain, withstanding tornadoes, floods, hail, and every natural disaster.

 

Wrecking out details are provided in drawings from Tillotson records

Charles H. Tillotson

By Ronald Ahrens

The papers we received from my Uncle Tim Tillotson included not only the record of Tillotson Construction Company’s building activities, but also these pages showing details of building a wrecking-out platform as well as jack rod assemblies and formwork details. Page two is dated November 12, 1954.

A wrecking-out platform was needed as workers disassembled the formwork on the inside of the completed elevator.

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Uncle Charles Tillotson has previously written about his close call when cable clamps failed.

In that post he described a wrecking-out platform this way:

The final scaffold then becomes a square platform suspended in a round tank.

The void on each side of the scaffold is used for lowering or throwing the wood material into the tank’s dark abyss. After all the overhead wrecking has been accomplished, another team gains access to the tank’s bottom via a manhole in the side of the tank at or near ground level.

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The drawings and details presented in the notes included here are invaluable. For example: The hole in the roof is formed with a one-quart motor oil can. (“Remove can & plug hole,” the addendum reminds.)

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The handwritten note in the upper right corner of the first page says, “I put my center needle beam under the manhole then it is easy to get plank on and easy to get on scaffold. If you think this helps O.K. other wise [illegible] to a goose going south.”

“I’ll pick it up when I catch him down about Galveston,” this section concludes.

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Another note is on the quality of timbers: “I’ve been using these for 20 years if you use 3 good 2 x 6 they work fine and save over the 3 x 6 & all that steel and all you have to do is cut the ones you use in the tanks and they will work in small bins.”

We look forward to readers’ comments on the pages.

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A search for Van Ness elevator images yields surprising results

Story by Kristen Cart

When hunting for ancient elevators–and by ancient, I mean hundred-year-old, steel-sheathed, wooden construction–you run into a serious problem: most of them no longer exist.

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A 1936 Omaha directory

The elevator you are looking for may have burned down years ago, followed by a replacement that also burned down. The things liked to catch fire, as a search of old newspapers will show.

Concrete construction was meant to reduce the problem, but the new elevators would burn in spectacular fashion when grain dust ignited, throwing debris and victims sky high.

The fertile ground for old elevator hunting remains the Internet, thanks to bloggers, satellite imagery, photographers, and the odd stuff that accumulates online.

Recently, we turned up some truly fascinating finds. We had discovered Charles H. Tillotson was president of Van Ness Construction Company, of Omaha, in the 1930s. He was the original founder of the construction business (and its progeny) that his children and their associates operated into the 1950s, as documented in this blog.

Charles H. Tillotson

Charles H. Tillotson

Now that we had a company name for his earlier efforts, the hunt for Van Ness elevators was on.

Rydal, Kan., was home to an early Van Ness elevator. The town was profiled in the blog Dead Towns of Kansas, a project by the Hutchinson, Kan., journalist Amy Bickel. On her page is a marvelous 1950s vintage aerial photograph of bridge construction showing two 1888- to 1907-vintage elevators, one of which was built by Van Ness. One of the two pictured elevators burned in 1952. We do not know if the fire consumed them both.

Luckily, a Van Ness mill and elevator in Grenola, Kan., was deemed historical, and the Kansas State Historical Society successfully nominated it for the National Register of Historic Places. Since grain was no longer stored there, the greatest threat to its survival was gone.

It is the only example we have found that still stands.

The architect of this elevator, designed and built in 1909, was P. H. Pelkey Company, with the construction completed by the R. M. Van Ness Construction, of Fairbury, Neb.

This company could have been the predecessor to the Van Ness Construction Company that Charles H. Tillotson led, and it may have been his earlier employer. A little more research could tease out the history of the Van Ness building enterprises in Nebraska.

But the elevator is representative of the typical construction of the time, when Charles would have been working in the business.

This old elevator is located in Grenola, Elk County, Kan., on a railroad siding which was formerly on a mainline of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Southern Kansas Division.

A reader recalls his youthful days at the grain elevator in Emmetsburg, Iowa

This T.E. Ibberson elevator, foreground, keeps company with a Tillotson elevator, right, in Dallas Center, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart

This T.E. Ibberson elevator, foreground, keeps company with a Tillotson elevator, right, in Dallas Center, Iowa. Photo by Kristen Cart

By Paul Grage

Editor’s note: Paul Grage (pronounced “GREGG-ee”) of Rockwell City, Iowa, is a 39-year-old supervisor at North Central Correctional Facility there. In his free time he surfs the Web looking for elevator sites.

I would like to share some memories of Cargill in Emmetsburg, Iowa, during the 1980s.

My fondest memory is of Old Number 2, built by T.E. Ibberson, of Minneapolis. My dad was the manager from 1979 until about 1996, and I would often call after school at harvest to see if I could come hang around. If they were accepting grain at Number 2, that is where I would be.

The alleyway [driveway] was huge. It had one  main grate and two side grates for overflow that all emptied into one  pit. It had a large horn like a fire alarm buzzer. This  sounded for phone calls, when the leg was up to speed, or when a bin ran full. The side entrance inside was flanked by two large aerator fans that roared. As a kid, it was kind of terrifying to exit between these two.

The Ibberson nameplate. Photo by Kristen Cart

The Ibberson nameplate. Photo by Kristen Cart

I remember the rippling of the grates as semis crossed them. I still remember the old portable, homemade, electrically powered, hydraulic pump that raised the old barge box wagons pulled by pickup trucks.

I remember the old gate at the bottom of the pit that accessed the leg. It was moved by a large lever next to the pit, right next to the leg button. You had to hear the buzzer before you opened that gate unless you wanted to plug the leg before it got up to speed. My dad tells horror stories about unplugging the leg. A test of your manhood was to go to the headhouse and hold back the anti-rollback dogs, like a one-way clutch, with a wrench or bar. The whole trunking would shake. The distributor crank was right next to the leg and man lift. It was a lever brake and crank-style bin selector that had belt pulley webbing on it to indicate which bin you had selected.

I remember the first trip to the headhouse with my brother. He was an employee with Cargill before they had nepotism rules. It was a sight to behold: the big open headhouse with all of its huge spouts, the huge gearbox and chain-drive leg and the big distributor. Inside this headhouse was a huge plywood shack. It was explained to me that it was a tripper scale used for loading railroad cars. It was long out of use, as this elevator had no rails and the new elevator did. This tripper scale did have long rods that extended down the man lift shaft to the alley below.

I remember the ride up the man lift with my brother. The dust was so thick on the walls the people had stopped along the way and scratched rather colorful sayings in the dust. (This was long before the days of dust control, so that dust was a good three inches thick in that man lift shaft. Now they have an air chuck so they can blow the dust down.) When I say man lift shaft I mean man lift onlythe leg shafting was built into the concrete.

The T.E. Ibberson name on the manhole cover.

The T.E. Ibberson name on the manhole cover.

The metal trunking only existed between the boot pit up to ceiling of the alleyway and then from the bin deck to the leg-drive pulley in the headhouse. The rest of leg trunking was made of a cement column inside. The shaft that the rest of the bucket was built into was hopper-bottomed just like all the overhead bins.

If I remember right, this elevator had eighteen overhead bins, one of which was used for rail car/tripper scale.

After learning the elevator inside out, the ironic thing is that I could never go to work in the grain business because I’m allergic to soybean dust. It’s almost lethal to me. When I was a kid, it didn’t faze me a bit. But my last year I hung around there, around 1988, I had to wear a respirator. 

Something else: They don’t paint this elevator any longer because it’s stress-cracked. They quit painting it because it was making the concrete rot. I like the aged look.

The Kansas City firm of Horner & Wyatt, Engineers, designed grain terminal giants

DSC02466Story and photo by Kristen Cart

Often a reader will turn our blog in a whole new direction by revealing a facet of the grain business we had not explored. In the case of Horner & Wyatt, an engineering and design firm out of Kansas City, reader David Chatt piqued our interest by asking us to locate some of their work. His grandfather, Oliver Howard Horner, a partner in the company, died  in the late 1930s.  David wanted to know more about the sites he had helped design. The quest seemed to be right up our alley.

It might be possible to discover the identity of the architects at elevator offices, but the common method of checking for the builder’s name on elevator manhole covers would only reveal the guys who poured the concrete. At McCook, Neb., a plaque inside the elevator names the designers. But newspaper accounts, journals, or local histories are the best way to learn about the architects of most elevators, especially for the large projects that changed the face of their communities.

David told us  the Galveston elevator, which was destroyed some years ago, was the only Horner & Wyatt site he could find. Further investigation revealed the company as a major player in elevator architecture, active as early as the 1920s. Our search for their projects revealed a completely different side of grain storage requirements: the end of the logistics trail, or the terminal elevator. We located a few of them, and most appeared to be massive.

Oliver H. Horner was an electrical engineer working for Black & Veach at the time he registered for the draft in 1917. By 1921, he was a partner in his own firm, based in Kansas City. In the 1930s he was engineering some of the biggest elevator projects in the country. He was still listed in that capacity in the city directory as late as 1939. Newspaper accounts described Horner & Wyatt as “consulting engineers” on various projects, which became increasingly complex as time went on.

Some of the sites we found, which were completed during Oliver’s lifetime, were elevators at El Reno, Okla., the Gooch Feed Mill at Lincoln, Neb., and the levee terminal at Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan. The company continued to design massive elevators into the 1950s at sites such as Happy and Lubbock, Tex., and the port terminal at Corpus Christi, Tex. Doubtless the designs for the later projects built upon the experience and ideas that went before and bore the unmistakable imprint of the company’s earlier engineers.

Oliver H. Horner left a legacy to be proud of, with elevators and mills still standing and operating in premier locations around the country. Horner and Wyatt was one of the top engineering companies working during the twentieth-century elevator boom. It’s very nice that one of our readers took the time to point them out.

In 1954, near the boom’s end, Albert City, Iowa, had a gleaming concrete elevator

Albert City, Iowa

By Ronald Ahrens 

Looking at this photo of Tillotson Construction Company’s 252,000-bushel elevator, completed in 1954, it’s easy to imagine the pride and awe of a small town’s few hundred residents.

Albert City is in northwest Iowa on a spur from Route 3, not far from Storm Lake in Buena Vista County. The Tillotson’s had also built that same year in nearby Pocahontas, where there was tragedy.

The Albert City job went more smoothly as the structure rose far above the tallest elms, although Uncle Charles Tillotson, who recently dug up this photo, has written about his frightening dismount from the formwork during a storm.

Uncle Michael Tillotson has also recollected about working here:

“The following summer (1954) we went to Albert City, Iowa, 75 miles North of Council Bluffs. We rented rooms in a private home. We worked with a 20 something guy that ran the winch pulley bucket to the top of the elevator as it progressed, and brought building materials down. We also rode the bucket up and down to get on deck. The elevator bens were 125 feet to the top with a Head-House of 75 on top of that.”

Company records show the elevator was built according to the same plan used in Pocahontas. This entailed eight outer bins that were eighteen feet in diameter and, contrary to Uncle Mike’s reckoning, 120 feet tall. Altogether, some 2091 cubic yards of concrete were reinforced by 106.57 tons of steel.

The bins rose from a main slab 21 inches thick and 60 x 72.5 square feet in area. It supported a gross loaded weight of 12,974 tons.

The cupola, or headhouse, was 23 feet wide, 58 feet tall, and 40 feet long.

Albert City was a single-leg elevator. Its head pulley was 72 inches in diameter and turned at 42 rpm. A 40-horsepower Howell motor supplied more than enough energy to turn it.

Twelve-inch-wide cups on a six-ply, 14-inch-wide belt carried up the grain that was dumped by incoming trucks. The 12-foot-wide driveway had two dump grates: 9 x 6 feet and 9 x 14 feet.

In 1954, Tillotson also built in Dacoma, Lahoma, Orienta, and Weatherford, Okla.; Booker, Tex.; Ensign and Montezuma, Kan.; Bellwood, Neb.; and Glidden, Goldfield, Newell, Manson, Pocahontas, and Iowa Falls, Iowa.

These were among Tillotson’s last elevators–the records close out with work in 1955–and they represented nearly everything the company knew about building.

A visit to Google Maps shows the elevator is still standing, which is to be expected given the Herculean effort needed to knock down all that reinforced concrete. But it appears idle. Given what we’ve learned about the limitations of midcentury elevators and today’s need for greater storage capacity and quicker unloading, that would make sense.

Nevertheless, it endures as a handmade monument, and a rich human history goes with it.

This ‘continuous pour’–and the marching band–would delight our grandfathers

By Ronald Ahrens

Photo by AC Martin.

Photo by AC Martin.

A  USA Today insert in my Feb. 6 edition of the Desert Sun newspaper carried this story about the new tower under construction in Los Angeles. The news will be of interest to the concrete enthusiasts among our readers.

The report on the 1100-foot Wilshire Grand project describes how the the foundation slab will be laid on Feb. 15: “The project will attempt to set a Guinness World Record with the largest continuous concrete pour ever… More than 2,100 truckloads will deliver 21,200 cubic yards of concrete weighing 82 million pounds.”

A typical Tillotson elevator–for example, Albert City, Iowa–needed 2091 cubic yards of reinforced concrete. That’s just under one percent of what’s going into the 100-foot-deep hole on Wilshire Boulevard. I’m trying (without success) to picture 100 grain elevators compressed in there.

The USC band will precede the first truck to the site.  It is not recorded that any band ever marched to the opening of an elevator job.

Nor is it believed a swimming pool topped any elevator, as will be the case at Wilshire Grand.

Technical complications will arise during the pour, and a quite amazing means of addressing them has been devised, as you will read in the story.

I mentioned all this to Uncle Chuck Tillotson and shared the clipping with him. He said that my grandfather Reginald had foreseen for Tillotson Construction Company a commercial future beyond elevator construction.

Applying their expertise with concrete in different applications would only have been natural, but it’s doubtful  he foresaw anything quite this big.

And I’m sure he didn’t think about anyone taking a dip while 1100 feet above the city.

With their works in Estill, South Carolina, Tillotson built big in cotton country

Freshly harvested cotton field in central South Carolina

Freshly harvested cotton field in central South Carolina.

Story and photos by Kristen Cart

The brightly wrapped cotton bales highlighted an otherwise drab landscape as I traveled the 91 miles south from Columbia to visit the Estill elevator, originally built in 1947. Rain and haze flattened the view. Since it was Sunday when I visited the elevator, few people appeared to be about. It was going to be a photography outing, for better or for worse.

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The Estill elevator, greatly expanded since it was built in 1947, was secured behind barbed wire.

I graduated high school in South Carolina. My impression of the place, after growing up in the western desert, was one of endless dark pine woods, with a brief gaudy display of azaleas and dogwood blooms in springtime.  I didn’t appreciate the raw beauty at the time. Now, on a soggy day, it had a mysterious appeal.

DSC_3431When I learned that the Tillotson Construction Company built an elevator in the state, it came as a surprise. We do not know who built the original house in 1947. Tillotson, according to company records, built the 225,000-bushel annex and a second, larger elevator, in 1952 and 1953, respectively. The trademark rounded headhouse rises above the 350,000 bushel elevator, built to finish the concrete elevator complex.

Michael M. DeWitt, Jr. outlined the history of the Estill elevator in his article for the Hampton County Guardian published on December 14, 2010. The article was written to herald the purchase of Carolina Soya by ADM. During its heyday, the elevator stored soybeans for soybean processing, which was part of the operation. Now it is strictly a storage facility for ADM, focusing on soybeans but also accepting corn.

The company laid off staff upon acquiring the facility in 2010, shrinking from 45 to 14 workers, heralding a loss to the community in a time of slow economic growth. ADM promised to hire from the laid off worker pool as needed.

DSC_3406I noticed that the good times had passed during my drive down. The decline of the area was evidenced by empty store fronts and decrepit gas stations, ancient closed restaurants, and tired houses–all along the highway south from Columbia, it was apparent that development chose another corridor and not this one. I wondered if there was one open gas station anywhere along the route.

The histories neglect one of the Estill elevator’s darker episodes. In the ’40s and ’50s, construction safety was not mandated as it is now. In one of the accidents that was all too common for elevator construction, Wayne Eugene Baker lost his life in a fall while working on the storage addition, or annex, built in 1952. For all of the heartache, Wayne helped build a thing of beauty that sustained its neighborhood for many years and still brings economic benefit to its region.

In Argentina, we encounter a colorful solution for abandoned elevators

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Story and photos by Ronald Ahrens

I went to Rosario, Argentina, the first week of January for a magazine assignment, and the group I was with ended up having lunch on the bank of the Rio Paraná, a big muddy river capable of handling large cargo ships for carrying grain and coal. Like so much else about this land of the Pampas, the Paraná reminded me of something you’d find in the Midwestern United States–specifically, it was perhaps wider than the Missouri River but not quite up standard set by the Mighty Mississippi.

IMG_8906As we had earlier driven into this large city–Argentina’s third-largest, with nearly 1.3 million people–I noted a couple of grain elevators, including what looked like a huge wooden one. But I was being herded with a group of reporters following the Dakar, a marathon rally for motorcycles, cars, and trucks. Rosario sprawls over 70 square miles, so there was no way I’d be able to make my way back there from the hotel where we were staying near the river.

How surprised was I when we went from the Juan Manuel Fangio Autodrómo, where the Dakar teams were set up before the rally’s start, to have lunch? The destination was a restaurant affiliated with the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Rosario–the museum of contemporary art. We parked on the riverside boulevard, Avenida Estanislao López, and as soon as we started walking I saw the colorful bins of a made-over elevator.

The art museum is integrated into the elevator!

IMG_8908I didn’t come away with any specifics, although it did occur to me to look for manhole covers that might have been cast with the builder’s name. I saw none, though.

As for the rest I hope these pictures tell the story.

By the way, Argentinians are very proud of their beef, and I was told repeatedly in advance of the trip that I should be sure to eat the beef because it’s out of this world. I did have a couple of nice steaks, but there’s no difference from U.S. beef.

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This tower, attached to the elevator, faces out to the river.

And this footnote: the passenger next to me on the flight home said the countryside has changed since the Chinese market for soy opened up–fewer grassy pastures, more fields with the crop. Presumably, there would also be changes in the way cattle are finished for market. Anyway, that explains why so much of Argentina looked like western Kansas, minus the farmhouses and barns.

The countryside is curiously devoid of buildings; everybody lives in town.